How to come up with a good subject line

One of the simplest but yet most difficult parts of email marketing is how to come up with a good subject line. Even the greatest marketers out there sometimes struggle to figure out what should be in the subject line. And rightfully so, really: it is the one thing shown together with your sender name that will first show up in the inbox.
This also means that it is one of the first things that makes someone take action (or not!) upon receiving and seeing your email. In this post I’ll describe a few tips and pointers on how to come up with a good subject line. Any help on how to come up with a good subject line is welcome, after all!
I’ll focus on three parts of an email in this article:

  • The body – what’s actually inside
  • The purpose – inform, convince, convert, sell…
  • The audience – who is it for anyway?

Enjoy and good luck with coming up with a good subject line for your newsletters and email marketing campaigns!

How to come up with a good subject line – the email body

For coming up with a good subject line for your email campaign or newsletter, there are a few helpful indicators. One of them is the email body: what is your message actually about? The subject line should be a short but descriptive line about the whole email. Its content, purpose (I’ll get to that later) have to be clear from the subject line. Something like ‘$companyname newsletter $month $year’ is dreadful: don’t ever do that (again).
Anything that describes the content like ‘New email marketing workshops start in March!’ is already great. It tells what’s inside, preferrably when (if applicable) and maybe a bit more.
And while talking about the email body, here’s a famous quote:

“A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

This quote by Winston Churchill can be put in an email marketing format too. Something like this:

“A good subject line should be like a woman’s skirt; long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.”

That wasn’t too hard, right? To ‘cover the subject’ might be even a bit overstating it. If you have 3 or 4 articles in your newsletter, how can you fit all 3 or 4 topics in your subject line? There are a few solutions:

  • Have one main theme for the newsletter and put that in the subject line
  • Have one main article and the rest as supporting articles – put the main article as subject line
  • Shorten topics to one or two words, with dashes in between, if they really -all- need to be in subject line

The problem with a long subject line (the second part of the quote) is that it will be either cut off by email clients, or not read at all because people scan, they don’t read. Mobile email clients especially have limited space for subject lines. For example, the Gmail email client on Android has about 30 to 36 characters available including spaces: that’s not a lot!
Here’s the regular Gmail inbox (click for larger version):
Even when someone has the luxury of a lot of screen real estate, you are fighting for attention with a lot of other emails in there. Both personal and business emails fill inboxes quickly. Just remember this: you have a split-second to encourage someone to do something with your email, or to act upon it: use that short window of time wisely!

How to come up with a good subject line – the purpose

While talking about doing something with your email or acting upon it: what is the purpose? What is the receiver supposed to do with it according to the subject line + contents? Center on the purpose and you can come up with great, active subject lines. Not something like ‘new research document available’ but something more like ‘Download new consumer research report now!’. A lot more enthusiastic, active and clear what the purpose is: to download something.
Take a step back from the subject line thinking and look at the purpose of the email. Think about the following: is the email intended for the audience to:

  • Download something
  • View a video
  • Attend an event like a webinar or workshop
  • Buy something
  • Read an (important) article
  • Make an appointment
  • Etc.

These are all actions to be taken by the receiver of the email. All emails have a purpose. Even if they are just informative, then the email itself plus any landing pages linked from it should be read and understood by the receiver. Focus on that for the subject line.
Find an email’s purpose, and you will find great input for an action-oriented and effective subject line.

How to come up with a good subject line – the audience

Remember, you are creating your email marketing campaigns and newsletters with a specific audience in mind. This means that you have to speak -to- them: use their lingo, their style of word use. Is it direct or not? Is it official or not? Maybe they like symbols? What about personalization?
All the above and more questions about your audience can be answered by digging into who is included into the list you will be sending your email to. Find out what their average age is, maybe location, gender, their relationship to you and other important info.
If the email is intended for clients that you’ve had a business relationship with for years for example, the subject line can be a bit light-hearted and direct. You have done business with those people for years, so any formal stuff would be considered odd and distant.
On the contrary, if you have just gotten in touch with a specific group within your total audience, don’t get too upfront yet. Maybe they’ve only received one email (your welcome email campaign) from your company yet and still need to understand what your company offers, who the people are that work there, etcetera.
Here’s an example subjectline:

“Hey Kenny, we have new language courses for you!”

Guess what, formal or informal? This is something that could be sent to a younger audience, and/or people that have been a member of your language institute for a longer period of time.
A bit more formal:

“We have new language courses available!”

And if your students are 68-year old males from Harvard who play golf:

“Learn a foreign language, impress the club members.”

Really, wording is important.
Know your audience and you will be able to create a subject line that speaks to them – regardless of whether you’re a fan of the lingo or not.

How to come up with a good subject line – some extra tips

Combining audience, purpose and body should get you right where you need to be on the subject line. Some extra tips on creating good subject lines to help you out:

  • Create an internal ‘subject line test group’ – to think over and discuss suggested subject lines
  • Use humor, but use it wisely. Humor can have a great impact, but make it very clear: it can easily be misunderstood
  • Look at past email newsletters and campaigns. What was wrong about the subject lines? What was great about them?
  • What do competitors who are in the same industry and audience do when it comes to subject lines?
  • Read newspaper and web magazine headlines. They are written by people who have written hundreds of compelling headlines – it is their job to attract visitors via catchy, engaging headlines.

I could give a lot more tips on how to come up with a good subject line, but this should make it just that bit easier to do so.
Good luck!
Some further reading:
Top ten email subject lines for 2012 – an oldie but goldie
Win an iPad! aka subject line creativity drying up? – about loss of creativity in subject lines

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